Moving Science

An Eye on the Mind: Change Agent David Powell

September 1, 2018

When, during the leadup to the Change Campaign, David Powell was asked if he knew anything about what Southern Research does, his answer was no. “I’ve driven past it a million times and had no idea what was really going on here,” he said. When he was invited to tour the campus instead of just driving past, he was amazed at the discoveries being made right in the middle of Birmingham.

SR’s focus on neurodegenerative disease, in particular, stood out sharply to him because of the harsh introduction he’d had to the subject the previous year. Last December, Powell’s mother died of ovarian cancer. But her cancer diagnosis came nine months after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis—and he was shocked to learn that she saw the cancer as a blessing. “Her mother had a protracted battle with Alzheimer’s,” he said. “And to my mom, cancer seemed like the better option.” SR’s research, he realized, had the potential to make the disease less terrifying.

“Southern Research is a part of Birmingham that needs to be told,” he said. “There weren’t enough people spreading that message.”

Powell was happy to do that, sharing his enthusiasm not just with old friends in Birmingham but with new friends made on dozens of business trips. “By the time you get to dinner, people are tired of talking about business,” he said. “You’re looking for interesting things to talk about.”

He even has a surefire opening line. “I’ll say, ‘Tell me about your city. What’s going on here?’ And that usually invites the question, ‘Well, what about where you’re from? What’s going on there?’” What’s going on in Birmingham is groundbreaking discovery at Southern Research.

That kind of awareness is crucial, he said, when working with diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. “Unfortunately, I think the neurodegenerative things are something people see and just say, ‘Aw, that’s sad,’ as opposed to, ‘Aw, that’s something we should do something about,’” he said. The diseases are lengthy and devastating for both the patient and family, “but they aren’t necessarily as attractive for investment. Or they’ve been forgotten while we spend money on something that seems more current.” Or, he said, less insurmountable.

“Insurmountable” isn’t a concept Powell believes in. He prefers the tech industry concept of “zero to one”—“Something didn’t exist, then it exists,” he said. He wants to see that kind of energy directed toward medical discovery. “How can we take a disease that was incurable and make it curable? How do we take something that was an impossible problem to solve and then solve that problem?”

Powell noted that in 1900, the two leading causes of death were flu and gastrointestinal distress. “We’d laugh,” he said. “‘People in 1900 died of flu and diarrhea? Who dies like that?’ I’d like to think that in 2018, we could flash forward 40 years and people would say, ‘People died of ovarian cancer? Who dies of ovarian cancer? Who dies of Alzheimer’s? That’s ridiculous!’”

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